From a small apartment overlooking Main Street, Sam Caplan still watches over Ellicott City.
Failing health allows only a faithful window vigil of the two-block section of the historic former mill town, but the 87-year-old Caplan's longtime influence lingers within the Howard County seat where he was born. The so-called "mayor of Main Street," Caplan at one time owned much of the town's property, having amassed about 30 properties in 40 years.
And it is Caplan's longtime ownership -- and recent release of his properties -- that has helped ease the way for the town's ongoing economic and aesthetic rejuvenation.
By virtue of his landholdings, Caplan is one of Howard County's oldest guard, a member of a family whose prestige comes from a time when there was no new town of Columbia and only Ellicott City. He and others ran the town's top stores and led civic and charity groups that played a key role in the town, which with its deep ravines and old buildings conjures images of the heart of Appalachia.
Indeed, the town went through some hard times and declined after World War II when the mills closed and many local businesses moved. Even until the late 1960s, the town was known for its slums without plumbing and delapidated housing.
The town was an "eyesore," with some tenants living in stores and bedsheets hung in storefront windows, said Doris Thompson, a former local newspaper owner and editor now involved in local restoration.
Today, many of the town's older buildings are being restored to provide an ambiance on which Ellicott City officials are capitalizing with new boutiques, craft shops and antique stores.
The historic character of Ellicott City has remained largely untouched, Caplan said. "I insisted on things being the same."
He did not raze or alter his buildings, even in times "when nobody cared about restoration," said Jean Hannon, chairman of the county historic district commission. And for that, local preservationists are grateful.
Caplan's ownership of many town buildings "has turned out to be one of the best things that's happened to the town," Thompson said.
Caplan's wife Gertrude said the sale of the bulk of their property over the past two years has made an impact on the town, with buildings being restored. "It's been quite a change for the better in the buildings that have been purchased," she said. "We've gotten older and didn't want to get into any projects. We sold to people that are reliable and that would better the town. And as we got older, there was too much to do."
The sales have "allowed things to go forward" and "brought fresh money" to Ellicott City, said Don Reuwer of the American Properties Inc. real estate firm that works with Caplan.
Nancy Gibson, president of the Ellicott City Business Association, said the property turnovers were "fortunate for the town." In part because of the sales, she said, renovation has "gone like crazy."
"It may have been a little slower and taken a little longer if Sam hadn't sold his buildings," she said.
Caplan has carefully planned his sales, picking purchasers with "moral commitment" to the town, said Reuwer. "I can't emphasize how much money Sam has sacrificed by not selling to the highest and best user."
Caplan accepted an offer that was $25,000 lower than another bid for a group of homes, Reuwer said, because full restoration was promised.
Much of the property went to the Historic Ellicott Properties Inc., a company owned by members of the Taylor family, who have longtime ties to Ellicott City. The landmark Howard House on Main Street was purchased by local attorney Robert Brown.
Housing that Caplan rented for $200 per month can now bring $650 after renovation, Reuwer said. "It's a whole different clientele."
All new businesses, restaurants and homes downtown are more "upscale," with many younger owners bent on preservation coming into town. Downtown business has turned around "100 percent" in the past two years, he said.
And renovation in Ellicott City has stopped being "just a labor of love," Reuwer said. It is now also a wise business move "because it'll pay off because of Howard County's growth."
Caplan himself points to his civic and charitable work as his primary contribution to Ellicott City, including the March of Dimes and the local Rotary group.
He was "very philanthropic," said his wife and others, and had little interest in personal extravagances.
And through Main Street's up-and-down times, Caplan has insisted -- to this day -- on living in the modest apartment in the building that housed his family's department store, closed now for 10 years.
"I was wished on the town and the town was wished on me and I never moved," said Caplan. "I like it considerably; it's my home."
Born above the store, Caplan proudly and successfully fought government regulations to keep the old Caplan sign outside his apartment windows after the store's closing. "I told them I wanted to see it there."